While it’s typically easy to detect emotion and intention in face-to-face communication, nuances in tone often get dropped when the conversation moves online. As a result, written communication can lead to misunderstandings and tension if one’s tone is left unmanaged. For industry professionals dealing with high-pressure, emotional events, tone can make or break a relationship with a couple—even if unintentional.
But eliminating tension from digital communication isn’t a matter of using flattery to appeal or tiptoeing around the purpose with delicate phrasing. Instead, focus on expressing your message in a clear, straightforward manner without hints of frustration.
Use these five best practices the next time you have to write a difficult or emotionally-charged message to avoid conflict and get your point across respectfully.
Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of emails or text messages that rub us the wrong way, so consider what has felt off-putting to you in the past. Think of phrases like “as per my last email” or “per company policy” that can feel cold or distancing to the reader. If done well, you can deliver difficult messages with a kind, respectful tone that doesn’t leave anything to question by carefully selecting your words and phrases.
Avoid pointing fingers.
Sometimes, a simple statement can be perceived as an accusation and put the recipient on the defensive. It helps to replace the word “you” with “we” as much as possible, speaking as a team rather than as separate parties. For example, instead of saying “you missed a deadline,” it’s easier for them to swallow if you position it as “we are behind on deadlines.” Using “we” demonstrates your commitment to the collective goal, making the other person feel supported rather than blamed.
Don’t replace phone calls with emails.
While emails are great for having a paper trail, they lack an empathetic connection that can only be made from speaking with others. Emotions are for phone calls and facts are for emails, so it’s best to start with a phone or in-person conversation when discussing sensitive topics. Then, follow up with an email for your records. If that doesn’t work, consider recording a video or voice text to deliver difficult messages so the other person can hear your tone and delivery.
Be clear about your intentions.
Don’t leave room to guess when writing to others! People cannot read your mind in person, let alone when they’re reading your words on a screen. Ask questions for clarity and avoid making assumptions about their desired outcome. It’s often best to state your intentions from the start. For instance, a brief note that says, “I know tone can be misinterpreted in email, so please know I simply want to be clear as I know clear is kind” acknowledges the message may not be ideal, but affirms that you’re genuinely on their side and ready to provide solutions.
Make sure they feel heard.
When discussing difficult subjects, it’s natural to want to overexplain. But you don’t need to write long messages to make a point or justify your decisions; instead, focus on validating the other person’s feelings and showing empathy for their perspective. When people feel heard, they’re much easier to disarm and have a meaningful conversation. Start and close your messages with empathy, and ask questions to demonstrate a desire to learn more about their thoughts and opinions.
You don’t have to be an expert writer to be polite and tactful in digital correspondence. Instead, let your heart lead with empathy and understanding to preserve relationships and keep your tone in check while communicating online!